Seven retired military leaders discuss what has gone wrong in Iraq

3 Nov. 2004 | Rolling Stone


The nineteen months since the war in Iraq began, some of the most
outspoken critics of President Bush’s plan of attack have come from
a group that should have been the most supportive: retired senior
military leaders. We spoke with a group of generals and admirals
that included a former supreme Allied commander and a former
chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and they all agreed on one thing:
Bush screwed up.

Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak

Air Force chief of staff, 1990-94
We have a force in Iraq that’s much too small to stabilize the
situation. It’s about half the size, or maybe even a third, of what
we need. As a consequence, the insurgency seems to be gathering
momentum. We are losing people at a fairly steady rate of about two
a day; wounded, about four or five times that, and perhaps half of
these wounds are very serious. And we are also sustaining gunshot
wounds, when, before, we’d mostly been seeing massive trauma from
remotely detonated charges. This means the other side is standing
and fighting in a way that describes a more dangerous phase of the

The people in control in the Pentagon and the White House live
in a fantasy world. They actually thought everyone would just line
up and vote for a new democracy and you would have a sort of
Denmark with oil. I blame Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the
people behind him — Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and
Undersecretary Douglas Feith. The vice president himself should
probably be included; certainly his wife. These so-called neocons:
These people have no real experience in life. They are utopian
thinkers, idealists, very smart, and they have the courage of their
convictions, so it makes them doubly dangerous.

The parallels between Iraq and Vietnam have been overblown,
because we were in Vietnam for a decade and it cost us 58,000
troops. We’ve been in Iraq for nineteen months and we’re still
under 1,200 killed. But there is one sense in which the parallel
with Vietnam is valid. The American people were told that to win
the Cold War we had to win Vietnam. But we now know that Vietnam
was not only a diversion from winning the Cold War but probably
delayed our winning it and made it cost more to win. Iraq is a
diversion to the war on terror in exactly the same way Vietnam was
a diversion to the Cold War.

Adm. Stansfield Turner
NATO Allied commander for Southern Europe, 1975-77; CIA
director, 1977-81

I think we are in a real mess. There are eighty-seven attacks on
Americans every day, and our people in Baghdad can’t even leave the
International Zone without being heavily armored. I think we are in
trouble because we were so slow in terms of reconstruction and
reconstituting the military and police forces. We have lost the
support of the Iraqi people who were glad to see Saddam go. But
they are not glad to see an outside force come in and replace him
without demonstrating we are going to provide them with security
and rebuild their economy. I am very frustrated. Having a
convincing rationale for going in gives our troops a sense of
purpose. Whatever you call it, this is now an insurgency using the
techniques of terrorism. With the borders poorly guarded, the
terrorists come in. All in all, Iraq is a failure of monumental

Lt. Gen. William Odom
Director of the National Security Agency, 1985-88

It’s a huge strategic disaster, and it will only get worse. The
sooner we leave, the less the damage. In the months since the
invasion, the U.S. forces have become involved in trying to repress
a number of insurgency movements. This is the way we were fighting
in Vietnam, and if we keep on fighting this way, this one is going
to go on a long time too. The idea of creating a constitutional
state in a short amount of time is a joke. It will take ten to
fifteen years, and that is if we want to kill ten percent of the

Gen. Anthony Zinni
Commander in chief of the United States Central Command,

The first phase of the war in Iraq, the conventional phase, the
major combat phase, was brilliantly done. Tommy Franks’ approach to
methodically move up and attack quickly probably saved a great
humanitarian disaster. But the military was unprepared for the
aftermath. Rumsfeld and others thought we would be greeted with
roses and flowers.

When I was commander of CENTCOM, we had a plan for an invasion
of Iraq, and it had specific numbers in it. We wanted to go in
there with 350,000 to 380,000 troops. You didn’t need that many
people to defeat the Republican Guard, but you needed them for the
aftermath. We knew that we would find ourselves in a situation
where we had completely uprooted an authoritarian government and
would need to freeze the situation: retain control, retain order,
provide security, seal the borders to keep terrorists from coming

When I left in 2000, General Franks took over. Franks was my
ground-component commander, so he was well aware of the plan. He
had participated in it; those were the numbers he wanted. So what
happened between him and Rumsfeld and why those numbers got
altered, I don’t know, because when we went in we used only 140,000
troops, even though General Eric Shinseki, the army commander,
asked for the original number.

Did we have to do this? I saw the intelligence right up to the
day of the war, and I did not see any imminent threat there. If
anything, Saddam was coming apart. The sanctions were working. The
containment was working. He had a hollow military, as we saw. If he
had weapons of mass destruction, it was leftover stuff — artillery
shells and rocket rounds. He didn’t have the delivery systems. We
controlled the skies and seaports. We bombed him at will. All of
this happened under U.N. authority. I mean, we had him by the
throat. But the president was being convinced by the neocons that
down the road we would regret not taking him out.

Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy
Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence,

From the beginning, i was asked which side I took, Shinseki’s or
Rumsfeld’s. And I said Shinseki. I mean, Rumsfeld proudly announced
that he had told General Franks to fight this war with different
tactics in which they would bypass enemy strongholds and enemy
resistance and keep on moving. But it was shocking to me that the
secretary of defense would tell the Army how to fight. He doesn’t
know how to fight; he has no business telling them. It’s completely
within civilian authority to tell you where to fight, what our
major objective is, but it is absolutely no one’s business but
uniformed military to tell you how to do the job. To me, it was
astonishing that Rumsfeld would presume to tell four-star generals,
in the Army thirty-five years, how to do their jobs.

Now here’s another thing that Rumsfeld did. As he was being
briefed on the war plan, he was cherry-picking the units to go. In
other words, he didn’t just approve the deployment list, he went
down the list and skipped certain units that were at a higher
degree of readiness to go and picked units that were lower on the
list — for reasons we don’t know. But here’s the impact: Recently,
at an event, a mother told me how her son had been recruited and
trained as a cook. Three weeks before he deployed to Iraq, he was
told he was now a gunner. And they gave him training for three
weeks, and then off he went.

Rumsfeld was profoundly in the dark. I think he really didn’t
understand what he was doing. He miscalculated the kind of war it
was and he miscalculated the interpretation of U.S. behavior by the
Iraqi people. They felt they had been invaded. They did not see
this as a liberation.

As for the recent news about the 380 tons of explosives that
disappeared, it’s irrelevant when they disappeared. This was known
by the International Atomic Energy Agency as a site to be watched.
Here is the issue: Bush tried to turn this into a political matter
instead of answering questions about why he didn’t follow the
warnings of the IAEA. It was another example of Bush being a
cheerleader instead of a leader. Nothing in Iraq was guarded except
for the oil fields, which tells you why we were there. There are
any number of indications that with a larger troop strength we
would have been able to deal with such sites. Here is my other
concern: The IAEA gave us a list of sites to be watched, so there
may have been other dumps that were looted. After all, you don’t
just put one item on a list.

So what do we do? I think it would be very irresponsible for us
to simply pull out. It sounds like a very simple solution, but it
would have some complexity and danger attached. Still, Iraq is a
blood bath, and we need to be dealing with this in a much more
sophisticated way than the cowboy named Bush.

Gen. Wesley Clark
NATO supreme Allied commander for Europe, 1997-2000
Troop strength was not the only problem. We got into this mess
because the Bush administration decided what they really wanted to
do was to invade Iraq, and then the only question was, for what
reason? They developed two or three different reasons. It wasn’t
until the last minute that they came up and said, “Hey, by the way,
we are going to create a wave of democracy across the Middle East.”
That was February of 2003, and by that time they hadn’t planned
anything. In October of 2003, Donald Rumsfeld wrote a memo asking
questions that should have been asked in 2001: Do we have an
overall strategy to win the war on terror? Do we have the right
organization to win the war on terror? How are we going to know if
we are not winning the war on terror? As it has turned out, the
guys on the ground are doing what they are told to do. But let’s
ask this question: Have you seen an American strategic blunder this
large? The answer is: not in fifty years. I can’t imagine when the
last one was. And it’s not just about troop strength. I mean, you
will fail if you don’t have enough troops, but simply adding troops
won’t make you succeed.

Adm. William Crowe

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1985-89
We screwed up. we were intent on a quick victory with smaller
forces, and we felt if we had a military victory everything else
would fall in place. We would be viewed not as occupiers but as
victors. We would draw down to 30,000 people within the first sixty

All of this was sheer nonsense.They thought that once Iraq fell
we’d have a similar effect throughout the Middle East and terrorism
would evaporate, blah, blah, blah. All of these were terrible
assumptions. A State Department study advising otherwise was sent
to Rumsfeld, but he threw it in the wastebasket. He overrode the
military and was just plain stubborn on numbers. Finally the
military said OK, and they totally underestimated the impact the
desert had on our equipment and the kind of troops we would need
for peacekeeping. They ignored Shinseki. The Marines were advising
the same way. But the military can only go so far. Once the
civilian leadership decides otherwise, the military is obliged.

There is not a very good answer for what to do next. We’ve
pulled out of several places without achieving our objectives, and
every time we predicted the end of Western civilization, which it
was not. We left Korea after not achieving anything we wanted to
do, and it didn’t hurt us very much. We left Vietnam — took us ten
years to come around to doing it — but we didn’t achieve what we
wanted. Everyone said it would set back our foreign policy in East
Asia for ten years. It set it back about two months. Our allies
thought we were crazy to be in Vietnam.

We could have the same thing happen this time in Iraq. If we
walk away, we are still the number-one superpower in the world.
There will be turmoil in Iraq, and how that will affect our oil
supply, I don’t know. But the question to ask is: Is what we are
achieving in Iraq worth what we’re paying? Weighing the good
against the bad, we have got to get out.

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